Leadership is defined as a responsibility. It is having the boldness to lead by example, encourage through positive reinforcement, allowing direct reports the ability to learn by mistakes, and provide coaching during those tough situations.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shell M. Phelps.
Shell Phelps is a SHRM-Certified Human Resources Director and co-founder of Phelps Strategies, where she is a strategic life coach. She holds a Master’s in Counseling Psychology and previously ran her own private therapy practice. As a HR professional and strategic life coach, Shell focuses on solution-based strategies to help employees, company leaders, and her clients get through life’s greatest challenges and live happier, more fulfilled lives. She is the author of the book The Big Bliss Blueprint: 100 Little Thoughts to Build Positive Life Changes. Learn more about Shell and her work at https://www.phelpsconsulting.net.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and lifted in Flint, MI where I was originally hired into an entry level accounting position at a local homeless shelter in downtown Flint. Here was where it all started. I was handed my first human resources role because no one else wanted to take on the additional responsibilities. I excitingly accepted absorbing the role, not having a clue of what I was getting myself into. I stayed there for six years working indirectly with the homeless women and children population and quickly discovered my desire for helping others grew intensely with each passing year. Hearing their individual stories, I wanted to help in a more direct way.
I went on to obtain my master’s degree in psychology. I had a private practice seeing clients where I developed over 100 managing daily life strategies When I continued my human resources career over the next 20 years, I found that several of these same strategies were applicable in the business world. I compiled them into a book just released on May 27th, 2020, The Big Bliss Blueprint.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I currently spend most of my time in a HR leadership role as a director for a tech company located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The company is over 60 years old and has continuously been reinvented to maintain longevity, which makes them stand out. Having an agile framework and knowing the tech world is ever shifting, this company embraces change. It also combines the solid foundation of its past with a good mix of long-term employees and new employees to transform the future by taking “continuous improvements” as a challenge in all areas of the company.
Upon accepting the position as a HR Manger, I quickly discovered my predecessor had been in the role for many years, with good systems. Unfortunately, every HR task was manual, and the HR department has been coasting on auto pilot without any updates for years. My first year, the CEO gave me the opportunity to revitalize the role with multiple impactful changes that streamlined and revamped the HR department. Introducing a full-service HRIS, electronic and remote onboarding, offboarding, new timesheet submission with manager approval systems that shaved off countless hours out of my day per week. The platform was cloud-based, and employees had apps on their phones to request time-off from the comfort of home to schedule their vacations. The funny part of the story was this tech company encountered many changes, as it is routine in the evolving computer world. But they just weren’t accustomed to the any HR changes. The seasoned employees at a tech company were extremely resistant to the initial rollout. Nevertheless, within 2 weeks everyone was on board and within a few months no one could recall how they did it before. Since then, they have become an up-and-coming leader in their industry. They adapt and embrace change, which makes this company stand out.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was once hired as a HR director for a manufacturing company. This was a new position to the company and the leadership team was ecstatic to have me fill the role. However, unbeknownst to me, the CEO was pacifying the leadership team and really didn’t see the need for my role. Within the first five days, a serious legal matter presented itself. I quickly managed the situation earning my stripes with the CEO.
As weeks went on, there became a regular line of employees outside my office door seeking my professional guidance. These lines formed before I arrived for work and again when returning from lunch. Then came the time limits that were instituted. Soon my employee relations and solution-focused skills became the ‘hot commodity’ around the office. I began to fill all my time slots like speed-dating rounds but in an office setting. It was like client sessions on steroids. There were about 220 employees, including the leadership team, that rotated through my office doors daily. I only lasted at that company for about a year and half due to quickly burning myself out. Ironically, I miss it to this day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was a first-time manager and my assistant, who did payroll, asked me if she could have the day off on a payroll day to go to an NSYNC concert. Trying to be a ‘responsible’ manager and thinking a concert was not a good enough reason to miss submitting payroll (which meant I was her backup) I denied her day-off request. Granted, I did know she really loved NSYNC but still I held strong on my decision. Covertly, I was more reluctant to process payroll due to fear of making a mistake on someone’s paycheck.
My assistant never forgot I would not allow her the day off to go to the concert. She was honest, a great employee, and still works for that company today nearly 20 years later. Our working relationship was never the same again.
The lesson I learned was not to let fear of making a mistake stand in the way. I always regretted that decision and still do. She should have been able to go and enjoy the concert. She is a hard worker and an outstanding employee. I allowed my own insecurities to cloud my judgment. I’ve never done that since.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
I would highly advise CEOs to incorporate flexible work schedules. Not only instituting working remote policies when feasible but allowing employees the opportunity to work outside of the typical 8 am to 5 pm office work schedules. Employees have personal lives and juggling life can get challenging in these difficult times. CEOs and business leaders should embrace deadlines vs. 40-hour work weeks within a set timeframe. Granted, we don’t want employees taking advantage of the flexibility. But to gain an advantage, if employers want to retain good employees, they can be more flexible with work schedules. Allow employees the autonomy in their professional careers to meet and set their own deadlines to align with customer and company expectations.
Along the same line, department leaders should review employee vacation balances. Once employees hit a certain accrual limit, management should be encouraging employees to take some well-deserved vacation time. Employees are seeking confirmation of job security; some avoid taking vacations for fear of what will happen if they do. Business leaders should set good examples of taking vacations and time off to spend with their friends and family. This will reinforce vacation time is given for a good reason.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is defined as a responsibility. It is having the boldness to lead by example, encourage through positive reinforcement, allowing direct reports the ability to learn by mistakes, and provide coaching during those tough situations. Leadership includes being engaged and plugged-in to their team and seek opportunities for open dialogue. Leaders should be mentoring and paving the path for future generations to follow. Find employees opportunities for growth beyond their expectations and help them to achieve greatness.
What I mean is that leadership is not only providing direction to others with an outstanding ethical compass but also having the willingness to be led when it is also time to listen or hand over the reins. Leadership evolves and keeps in mind when it’s time to change course. True leadership creates new paths, not necessarily ones that have already been taken.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
When my mind starts racing and my body begins to tighten up with an anxious feeling due to an upcoming important event, I can begin to identify stress is coming on. The best ways for me to manage stress is to unplug for brief periods. If time permits, I like to get up early at day light, when the world is quiet, and put my selected motivated music on with my headphones (usually Eminem.) I tune out my own stress provoking thoughts to re-group and take a few laps around my neighborhood for about 20 minutes. In this amount, I can usually clear my head and re-center myself to relax. This clears my mind to refocus on maintaining my ideal outcome.
If I need a quick pick-me up or distraction, I put on a motivational podcast or some YouTube mediation music. Both are easily accessible and shift my thoughts temporarily so my mind can relax and allows my body to return to its balance.
I was getting ready to go live on YouTube and Facebook for my book release launch party. I was extremely nervous about making a mistake live with no safety net and the possibility of it not going well with my friends, family, and colleagues watching. The morning of the live event I got up about 7 am put on “Lose Yourself” by Eminem and I did just that. I lost myself in the music and focused on his words. I felt pumped up and ready to take on the event like a champ. I was in the best mood the rest of the day and held that feeling with a positive attitude during the entire hour of the event. Whew! I was so proud of myself when it was over.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?
During my 20+ years in my professional career, I have had to manage people and provide feedback. They go hand-in-hand. Providing positive and negative feedback is an essential skill to managing a team. You must give both. The most difficult aspect of managing a team is dealing with many different personalities. This means the feedback you give one person may not be received the same way to another person. In my experience, adjusting your feedback delivery method is crucial to being an effective and strong leader or manager. Whether you’re managing one person, or several employees be aware of each employee’s receptivity to the different methods of feedback deliveries. Especially in my HR role, providing negative feedback became my forte. So much so that the leadership team nicknamed me “the velvet hammer”. This meant I could deliver negative feedback in such a compassionate way, they didn’t know what hit them.
At one point the company had to down-size over 50 employees and we were laying people off week after week. I was the one pulling the verbal trigger on each and every termination. I became so masterful at letting people go, I created a systematic flow and crafted my words with gentleness and compassion. That is how I got the nick name of The Velvet Hammer. I had it down to a science. Although it was something I never aimed to be good at doing because I didn’t enjoy it.
I told employees to hold their heads up high when we walked out to retrieve their belongings. I treated each employee with dignity, grace, and respect. Employees were walking out of my office with smiles, not tears. I had more than one person follow up with emails, thanking me on how I made them feel during an unpleasant event. I perfected my tone of voice, word selection, removing my emotions when inserting facts, but listening with a compassionate ear. Your statements need to be meaningful to be powerful and you don’t need a loud boisterous tone.
This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?
Providing honest and direct feedback is an essential ingredient of being an effective leader due to the fact it takes the guess work out of the equation for the employee. Have you ever had an annual review from your boss and was marked down on something you thought you were doing well? I have personally and I have seen many employees baffled at some of their ratings from their managers as I sign-off on annual reviews each year as a HR leader. Why is this? It is because some leaders find it difficult to give constructive feedback when occurrences happen. Most companies do not train managers or leaders to provide healthy, direct, and honest feedback with tactfulness. These are missed opportunities for the employee to grow and expand their professional potential. When a leader is able to provide this type of feedback, employees tend to push through because they have a clear direction and begin to shine when they take the feedback as intended in a healthy dose.
Being honest and direct doesn’t mean one should be cruel, unkind, or higher your voice. Provide the facts when sharing constructive feedback. It’s harder to dispute the facts. The trend is that employees respect candid, direct, and honest feedback because it builds trust. This is a key indicator of a mutually investable working relationship. No one wants to guess if they are doing well or when they are messing up. Leaders should be trained on providing clear, concise, constructive, and honest feedback. There are simply countless benefits, if it’s done responsibility and professionally.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
#1. One of my favorite approaching is using the “sandwich method” when delivering constructive criticism via email to remote employees. This entails providing and starting with a positive introduction and/or statement to begin the communication. Next, identify the reason for the email with a thoughtful word selection that includes what I call “mindful messaging” to point out the construction feedback for improvement with honesty and a direct approach for clarity. The third piece I like to include in the ending of the email is to ask for their input or thoughts on the subject. One thing I learned is there is always more to the story.
Story: I had a current employee ready to accept a new position inside the company. The offer letter had been sent. This employee was ambitious and extremely motivated. They had already demonstrated a willingness to learn and wanted to grow with the company after several years. All of which I incorporated into a constructive “sandwich method” feedback email. The reason for the email was when the employee was offered the transitional position, they had responded with some unflattering comments and offended the hiring managers. The offer was immediately placed on hold. The quoted unflattering comments were inserted into the middle of my “sandwich method” email. I also incorporated the final slice of bread to the sandwich and inquired the employee to provide additional thoughts regarding the comments sent to the hiring managers.
Since the employee had such good history with the company, I knew there had to be more to the story and there was. Then I invited the employee to a video-call to discuss the details further. I talk more about this option below in #5. The company ended up hiring the employee into the new position and we reconciled the matter quickly. This story had a happy ending.
#2. In the spirit of not coming across as too harsh when providing constructive criticism, stick to “fact finding”. Avoidstatements such as “it feels like” or any passive statements that are more subjective. Provide clear concise statements with examples, data, or attachments of items that provide evidence to support your claim. Try avoiding hearsay, the discussed content should include items between you and the employee only. Unless documented and permission was granted. It is harder to dispute facts and reduces the employee from feeling attacked or defensive. Your declaration needs to be meaningful to be powerful and keep it short without the fluff.
Example: For a remote employee, send an email pointing out the facts of the situation or project elements that are missing information, identify errors, or if a deadline has passed. Find out the facts of the circumstances by asking directly. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that a manager can’t determine without knowing the root cause or the employee’s rationale. Sometimes we can learn a lot from employees by finding out the facts first before drawing a negative conclusion. This is when we all learn something.
#3. Engage with employees that will require constructive criticism by initially soliciting their feedback. I start out by asking “How do you think that went”? It does two things. One) You can see where their perspective falls. Sometimes employees are already aware of their shortcomings and it make things easier for the discussion. Two) This opens the dialogue to approach the topic by putting it on the table. If it becomes clear you are on opposite side of the spectrum, it would be better to move the conversation to a phone or video call, which I explained in more detail below in items #4 & #5. . These methods can help reduce potential misunderstanding the email brings.
Story: During the interviewing process, we had a team of us conducting interviews for one specific candidate. We all did our own individual interviews. I provided interview assessment forms for each of us to fill out and I gathered them all to review, looking for a consensus result. From the majority of perspectives, the employee fit the bill and almost everyone on the hiring team was excited about progressing to hire this person. Except one of our new members on the hiring team. This person has never gone through this evaluation process and marked the candidate down on most items. Shocked by his evaluation, I inquired via email on how he thought the interview went? He wasn’t aware that he was the odd man out yet, but I wanted to know more information and not just from looking on the checkmark ratings in the form he had submitted. As he presented his perspective it became clearer he had some valid concerns, which I was thankful for his honesty and how forth-coming he was.
What I thought was going to be a constructive feedback debate turned into a healthier discussion in-person and training session on the hiring process. It turned into a win-win conversation. We did not hire the candidate.
#4. Schedule or pick up the phone to have a one-on-one phone call when giving constructive criticism to a remote employee. If an initial email isn’t going well or you know a phone call will be a better approach to a delicate conversation, then try this method. Unlike email, we can read a person’s tone in their voice and sometimes when asking an employee a question, an empty space of silence and a blank stare can speak volumes. These non-verbal reactions are not translated through an email. Since social distancing, emails have become more the norm for fast and easy communications. However, not all conversations warrant brief discussions. The other advantage to a phone conversation is people are more willing to elaborate while talking then cementing comments into an email. When employees put communications in writing, they may be afraid they are going on the record and it may be used against them in some way. They may avoid being held accountable and so you may not find out the important parts of the story.
Story: An employee and I were having, what I thought, was a general email discussion. Somehow, I must have said something that triggered the conversation to go south really quickly. I immediately scheduled a phone call to find out more information. I was so glad I did. Turned out the employee was simply having a bad day and misread my email and tone (that wasn’t implied) but had reframed it in his mental reading of the email. We ended up have a very in-depth conversation and I was able to help resolved a few other issues the employee was having due to their emotions getting the best of them. This was something I would have never picked-up on or addressed if I hadn’t reached out with a phone call. I think social distancing does play a role on having less interactions with others right now because people still seek to have those personal connections.
#5. My preferred method of giving honest feedback and gaging to ensure my message is not too harsh with a remote employee is a one-on-one video call (skype, zoom, team, etc.). It’s the next best thing to an in-person conversation. Giving constructive criticism is difficult regardless, then you add limitations onto it like, delivering unappealing messages via email or phone can compound the issue. What I do like about video calls is that a manager can visibly see the employee’s reaction to the content of the critique. I usually start the call out by outlining the conversation as a “do-better” talk. This is not something I would typically type in an email so the informality of talking usually puts people more at ease.
While I am expressing the constructive criticism, I place heavy focus on the receiver’s facial expressions. Most people don’t even realize how big their eyes get, or their smile disappears, or the concerning looks that appear when they grow quiet. Once I notice the non-verbal ques, I can start engaging them in the conversation to allow them the opportunity to provide their feedback. This helps defuses the situation and helps to maintain a two-way conversation to ensure that the feedback isn’t coming across as too harsh. Listening is one of the best tools of communication. For these reasons, I would highly recommend a video call if the topic could ruffle some feathers.
Story: I understand that this is an extreme example but nonetheless, it’s a valid reference. I opted to schedule a video call with a current employee. Coordinating with the employee’s manager, a skype call was setup. This particular employee lived out of state, which made this situation more difficult. I had to terminate this employee and they had no clue it was coming due to budget cuts. I felt terrible! It was the first video termination I had to do in my career.
Although I had let many people go in person, it felt awkward. I was concerned about all the technical issues on top of the way I had to announce they were losing their job. When you let someone go, you just never know how someone is going to react. Lucky for me, this employee took it rather well. I shared the news and had all my electronic documents ready to review and sign right on the spot. To my surprise, the entire process went extremely well. Unlike how I expected. The employee worked remote 100% so there was no cleaning out their desk, or office, or having to walk through the building doing the “walk-of-shame”. I noticed the look of disappointment on the employee’s face, so I was able to give a re-assuring nod of empathy. Also, I verbally confirmed that the reason was strictly budgetary.
Still, it’s a hard setback to hear from a video call. I have done a few since then and still prefer to do them in person to ensure that the employee is ok. Once I’m off the call, I have no way to confirm. I do send a follow-up email, but I realize that is not the same.
Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Providing constructive feedback via email can be tricky. Be sure to know your audience and proceed with caution. Be mindful of the tone of the email. A good rule of thumb is to consider if you wouldn’t say it to them if they were standing in front of you in the manner you are writing it, chances are it is not a good idea put it in an email. I have found an effective method is to state the issue in form of a question first to ensure you have the information correct. Then, if you do have it correct, keep the constructive feedback short and concise. Longer emails are not better and can be more misconstrued.
To avoid sounding too critical or harsh in an email, make sure you turn on your filter with three things in mind when providing constructive feedback:
1. Is it helpful? (In what way?)
2. Will it prevent a negative outcome? (In what way?)
3. Will it have a positive impact in the long run? (In what way?)
Focus on filtering and answering those three questions before you push send. If you are just venting or irritated by someone’s behavior, really consider if it’s really worth your time and energy. Make sure your feedback is meaningful because you can’t undo a sent email and you will not be able to see their response as you can in person.
In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?
Depending on the situation, the timing of providing feedback or critiquing someone can be crucial to the desired outcome. In my experience, there are three types of events to consider helping to evaluate the best time.
1. A minor situation: In a minor situation, I recommend addressing it immediately. This is due to the affect it could have on one person unbeknownst to the other person(s). This could involve an apology for saying something the wrong way or sending incorrect information. It’s better to deal with these types of mishaps right away so no one stews over them. I call them time wasters.
2. A major situation: If an employee really messes up on a project or misses a deadline, it is also a good approach to deal with it head on and right away. However, making sure the discussion is in private and not humiliating to the employee in front of colleagues and can be used as a learning opportunity. So, make sure it is managed quickly but appropriately as well.
3. A catastrophe situation: If an employee presents a more serious situation that may even get them fired, I would refrain from reacting immediately. Cooler heads prevail and making sure you dot your i’s and cross your t’s without a knee-jerk reaction is a responsible approach. This give the decision-makers time to regain their composure and attempt to remove heighten emotions out of the situation. Sometimes a little time is needed to gain a clearer perspective for a longer-term decision.
To summarize the best time to give feedback or to critique someone is to evaluate the situation. Each one is unique. Waiting too long could give employees the wrong impression that it was not impactful. Reacting too quickly when emotions are running high could be detrimental. My boss once told me, a manager should go a level up to discuss situation when in doubt. I think that is good advice.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
To be a great boss you must set clear expectations. An employee cannot hit the bull-eye if the target is not in sight or if there is a moving target. This includes continuous and clear communications, which are essential ingredients. An effective boss has open lines of regular communication. This also means being a good listener to their employees. A great boss sees your potential and challenges you with opportunities to push you to grow as well as gives you the autonomy to find your way. A great boss allows a margin for error and seeks to teach through those moments with dignity and support. Trust is a must. Knowing your boss is there when you need guidance and has your best interest in mind. The best boss allows for mutual respect and leads by example. The best boss sees the professional relationship as a give and take allowing employees to be human and not perfect robots.
I currently have a great boss. This leader is a visionary who works hard and leads with diplomacy. There is no demeaning or fear-based tactics. Just open lines of communication with trust and honesty on both sides. He values his employees as assets and plays to their strengths.
It has been extremely difficult through my HR career to find a great boss who understands HR is not the enemy but a business partner who is on their side to find the balance to protect the employees and the company. I finally found a true leader, a great boss, who understands the value of having a positive company culture and all of what I can bring to the table. I am extremely grateful and have the upmost admiration for having such a human being.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I aim to inspire a movement with the new release of my book, The Big Bliss Blueprint, by having people sharing photos on my social media doing what makes them happy. It is called “Sharing Your Bliss”. I would like people all across the world to send in photos and stories sharing with others their blissful moments. We have so much hate and negativity in the world right now. Let’s flip the script to showing the world all the things that bring us happiness. As the meaning is different to each one of us.
Let us leave a positive imprint and create a new blueprint by creating bliss on a daily basis. Let us focus on what is right in the world for brief moments in time and spread joy. Let’s be kinder to one another and share those stories. Give power to sharing your bliss, whatever that looks like to you with everyone. I would love to give people the opportunity to buy t-shirts, hats, bags, etc. and incorporate that into the photo so all you see is “My Bliss” printed on items and we would recognize the meaning in a photo without words. People out there taking pictures doing what they love with who they love sharing those experiences with an appropriate way world friendly way. I would love to be the catalyst for this movement one day soon.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes I use in my daily life is “Do you want it done? Or do you want it done right?” because time and effort are two main ingredients in being successful in anything you do. If you made the choice to do something, you may as well do it right! Unless time is not on your side, completing something using your best effort and taking your time to do it right will catapult you to the next level. It keeps you moving forward instead of backtracking with rushing and making needless errors.
During my career, I began to push and push myself to move faster and get more things done in my personal and professional life. I later realized I was missing out on the enjoyment of the journey. I pushed myself to get my master’s degree and then pushed myself to open my own private practice. In which I achieved success in both. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and had a thriving private practice with more clients than I had time for. I woke up one day to discover how did I get here? Everything happened so fast and I wasn’t enjoying my life at this point. A good friend of mine said to me that I was always working and not living. My friend was right. I got everything done but it didn’t turn out as I hoped because I rushed through each step instead of steadily progressing and savoring each moment. I burned myself out in five years flat. Now, I live by doing things right and taking my time to enjoy life with a balance.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Yes, please visit My website is https://www.phelpsconsulting.net/.
@PhelpsStrategies on Facebook @ phelpsstrategies on YouTube
@Shell Phelps on LinkedIn @PhelpsStrategi1 on Twitter
@phelpsstrategies on Instagram Also email me at [email protected]
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.